Facebook, nannying, and objectives

Gibbs ponders the problems with employees and social networking and suggests that nannying won't cut it.

Over the last few months there's been a lot of discussion about how employee use of social media in general and Facebook in particular has to be managed (see Network World's Tech Debate). What's driving this concern are three major issues, the first being privacy of corporate data.

Since the dawn of the commercial Internet the problem of staff sharing sensitive or confidential information has been a big deal and what we're interested in here is the problem of accidental disclosure, something that is intrinsically very hard to solve.

No matter how much you train staff, even the most compliant and careful employee can make mistakes. This means that there's some minimum level of unwanted disclosure that you just have to put up with, but the same concerns apply to e-mail and the telephone so social media is, in that respect, not much different.

The second issue is organizational image. An unthinking comment by an employee could easily damage your brand, loose a customer, or lead you into a legal problem. This means, for example, that you probably don't want your backroom engineering guys posting to their Facebook page about your latest product release or engaging with customers via Twitter unless they've been properly trained and are competent communicators.

Here's the thing: Both privacy and image can be addressed and mostly solved by education and monitoring. You evaluate the communications skills of your staff and then tell them what they can and cannot say about corporate matters. And, should you feel it necessary, you can use any of the many available network monitoring tools to look for keywords and behaviors that indicate that boundaries are being crossed.

This leads us to the third issue and the one that seems to be the greatest concern at present: Productivity. It seems that many organizations are obsessed with the idea that social networking is an enormous time sink that takes staff away from real work. As a result, many of these outfits are deploying extensive and expensive network monitoring and traffic management tools to track and limit access to the likes of Facebook.

What I don't understand is why these companies don't get it, "it" being the fact that appearing to do work and actually doing work are two different things. The fact that your staff isn't on Facebook doesn't mean it is productive, it just means it isn't on Facebook.

If your employees are determined to waste time then there are scores of alternative time sinks for them to choose from: they can probably play solitaire or Tetris on their computers or whatever games they have on their smartphones (which they can use during work hours to access social networks anyway). And if none of those are appealing enough, they can always make chains out of paperclips and surreptitiously wrestle with Sudoku puzzles on (gasp!) paper.

<aside>I don't get the fascination people have with Sudoku; after you've done a couple of these puzzles, where's the challenge?</aside>

There's a simple way for your organization to ensure employees are being productive and it can do this without investing in additional technology and services.

This simple way is to manage by objectives. When employees know what their job is and what results are required, then as long as corporate standards are met (which can be addressed with training and without technological monitoring) and resource use is within acceptable limits, the complexities of nannying employees are pretty much avoided.

Now it's true that management by objective requires skillful and careful implementation and has to be backed up by sound leadership, but as our organizations become ever more connected through social networking and Internet communications, what real choice do we have?

At the heart of the nanny strategy is the unsolvable problem that policing for productivity is extremely time consuming, very costly and, ultimately, unworkable. It is time to start valuing results over appearances.

Gibbs isn't monitored in Ventura, Calif. Your objectives to backspin@gibbs.com.

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